I've just returned from a week in Montana, where I happily passed a week on my brother-in-law's farm, within petting distance of dwarf goats and monstrous pigs, reading two new books by Luc Sante, author of "Low Life," "Evidence," and "The Factory of Facts."
The first, Sante's translation of "Novels in Three Lines" (New York Review Books Classics), by the French anarchist and aesthete (art critic, journal editor) Félix Fénéon, was revelatory.
I already knew something about Fénéon, because of my research on Oscar Wilde, who subscribed to French anarchist journals. I've read up on the Trial of the Thirty -- 30 leading
anarchist journalists and critics were hauled into the courtroom in Paris after the anarchist Émile Henry threw a bomb at the Cafe Terminus in the Saint-Lazare station in 1894. Fénéon, who was accused not only of advocating anarchism, but of being in possession of the types of detonators the anarchists used to set off their bombs (according to Sante's introduction, they really were Henry's detonators), yet he managed to be witty in the dock, and was exonerated. Example:
JUDGE: "It has been established that you surrounded yourself with Cohen and Ortiz."
FÉNÉON (smiling): "One can hardly be surrounded by two persons; you need at least three."
(I'll bet these snappy responses influenced Wilde's witticisms when he was put on trial for sodomy not long after that. Alas, for Wilde and literature, he was not exonerated.)
Anyway, in Sante's translation, Fénéon's three-line news items/novellas -- published in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin, in 1906 -- have much to teach us. Especially those of us who toil in daily journalism. Fénéon's politics were anarchistic (policemen, soldiers, elected officials, and non-striking workers come off badly in these items), but more interestingly, so were his sensibilities: He was neither conservative nor liberal, neither a populist nor a mandarin. Fénéon was an aesthete in the most exemplary sense of the term: someone determined to discover everyday life's inherent artistry, and so to transform our blunted, violent 20th-century experience into something gorgeous, terrible, memorable, charming.
Some of Fénéon's entries remind us that comedy is a man in trouble:
His head injury was not serious, believed Kremer, of Pont-a-Mousson, who continued working for a few hours, then dropped dead.
Scratching himself with a revolver with an overly sensitive trigger, M. Édouard B. removed the tip of his nose in the Vivienne precinct house.
Having just sniffed a pinch of snuff, A. Chevrel sneezed and, falling from the hay wagon he was bringing back from Pervencheres, Orne, died.
Others remind us that Edward Gorey and other contemporary practitioners of blague (deadpan black humor) had nothing on the turn-of-the-century French:
Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.
Again and again Mme. Couderc, of Saint-Ouen, was prevented from hanging herself from her window bolt. Exasperated, she fled across the fields.
Jostled by the convulsive piety of a pilgrim at Lourdes, Monsignor Turinaz injured himself on face and thigh with his monstrance.
The closest we come to this sort of thing today is FARK, I guess, or (here in Boston), Boston.com's list of Most E-Mailed Articles. Too bad. However, there is some good news: One hears that Sante is planning to translate more writings by the French anarchists. Can't wait!
Sante's other new book is "Kill All Your Darlings" (Yeti/Verse Chorus), the first collection of his freelance writing -- from the New York Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere.
The essay "My Lost City," about Sante's experience of New York in the pre-yuppie 1960s and '70s, is the best thing I've ever read in NYRB. Except, perhaps, for "The Invention of the Blues," in which Sante rejects sentimental notions about the blues (e.g., the blues arose spontaneously, from oppressed African Americans, as a reaction to their oppression) and argues brilliantly that, instead, "it was a deliberate decision arrived at by a particular artist through a process of experimentation, using materials at hand from a variety of sources." I wish that one came with a CD.
Sante's critiques of French and Belgian artists, from Hugo (a proto-Surrealist, we discover) to Hergé, not to mention other protean cultural producers, notably Bob Dylan, Terry Southern, and Robert Mapplethorpe, are erudite and (much more difficult to pull off) original. But I was particularly pleased to discover personal essays on: Sante's experiences working an injection-mold machine after school; the glorious days before we decided that cigarettes were evil; and the prehistory of hip. Sante even dons an archaeologist's helmet and uncovers the origins of the terms "dope" and "funk." What else could you ask for?
Actually, I do have a request: M. Sante, please expand on your point that "the deaths of blues musicians are particularly subject to dubious or imaginative retelling." Perhaps this phenomenon has something in common with the biographies of ancient Greek poets and philosophers, whose death stories may have been intended to sum up their worldviews. I'd certainly enjoy reading your analysis of Blind Lemon Jefferson's weltanschauung.
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